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Taking the gloves off.

My older brother Gary, who is an architect and a partner in his firm, told an interesting story when we were together at Christmas. A recently hired architect brought him a drawing of a routine stud wall to check. "I looked at it and knew something was haywire, but I couldn't figure out what it was," my brother said. "And then it hit me and I couldn't believe it." He took the drawing back to the junior architect and asked him, "What are the dimensions of a two-by-four?"

"Two inches by four inches, of course," the young man replied.

"Have you ever actually measured one?"

"No. Why should I?"

There is no need to bother, unless you want the walls to meet at the corners.

My brother ended this hard-to-believe-but-true story by poking fun at the young man's alma mater, an old, distinguished institution that, its detractors say, turns out more than its share of theorizers and aesthetes. Gary graduated from the cross-state rival, a land-grant university known for never straying too far from the practical. (I followed my brother at this school, although not in architecture. Its detractors call it a cow college because of its ties to agriculture and similar disciplines.)

I was reminded of my brother's story when I read of James Nasmyth's distrust of "young engineers who are addicted to wearing gloves" (see page 40). What a marvelous symbol those gloves are, an expression of the wearer's desire to insulate himself or herself from the mundane aspects of one's profession, to avoid getting one's hands dirty. They attempt to enforce a class distinction between, for example, an engineer and a technician, a designer and a manufacturer, a theoretical physicist and an experimental physicist, an architect and a carpenter.

Within mechanical engineering, some say that undergraduate education should include more practical training in areas such as machining. Others contend that class time is better spent on basic principles and analytical techniques, leaving the student's future employer to train him or her in technical details. The debate is an honest and healthy one that is worth continuing. Certainly no one can be expected to know it all. We all depend on the expertise of our coworkers and on continuing education courses to bridge the gaps.

An apprentice carpenter learns the actual dimensions of a 2-by-4 (1 1/2-by-3 1/2 inches) at roughly the same time he gets his first splinter, in the first few hours on the job. It is hard to believe that an architecture student could study for five years and graduate without knowing this basic fact. But most disconcerting is the attitude of refusal, which says "I don't need to know that; let the carpenters worry about it." If that arrogant attitude is the result of his education, then the program is deeply flawed.

The world of graspable dimensions that is Nasmyth's legacy is retreating all too fast as it is. The automobile serves as an example. Amateur mechanics are frustrated that the electronic systems in today's cars prevent them from making their own repairs. Even more frustrating to them is that a professional mechanic does not make conventional repairs either. Instead, he simply swaps one circuit board for another and charges $180. He barely gets grease on his hands.

No doubt the new electronics bring higher performance, but they also increase the driver's anxiety. If a key circuit fails, the car will stop in its tracks and the owner will be stranded. I wonder if the automotive designers realize that. Has it ever happened to them? And I wonder about the young architect. What if he had been given a pile of lumber and were asked to build that wall?
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Title Annotation:engineers must learn mundane aspects of their profession
Author:O'Leary, Jay
Publication:Mechanical Engineering-CIME
Article Type:editorial
Date:Feb 1, 1990
Words:617
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